Saturday, March 25, 2006

Actual surveys

Today I did surveying again, and this time we actually got to survey people, rather than just advertising a meeting! The survey is 52 questions with demographic information, and then questions on what the person liked about Biloxi before the hurricane, what they think the highest priorities should be after the hurricane, and what they think the most pressing issues for the city are. The idea of the surveys is that the Coordination and Relief Center will compile the information about what the citizens of East Biloxi want and give that information to the mayor and city planners, so that they will either have to take that information into account when they plan what will happen next, or they will have to knowingly go against what the city's people want.

We first went to two trailer parks, which are not trailer parks in the traditional sense, but just fields full of FEMA trailers that have sprung up after the hurricane. This was to survey people who had lived in East Biloxi before the hurricane, but who were living elsewhere after the storm. Most of the people were not home -- who would stay in a tiny trailer on a Saturday if they didn't have to -- but I surveyed one woman who was home. She was 20 and had two small children, both about two or three years old, and they were all home watching Saturday morning cartoons. She was African-American, and worked cleaning casinos before the hurricane. I realized later that I'm 20, too, so we were the same age, but living very different lives.

The population in Biloxi is about 15% Vietnamese, and one of the two open places for lunch in East Biloxi is this Vietnamese sandwich shop called Le Bakery. Everyone raves about their sandwiches, and indeed, they are very delicious; we had them for lunch. They have marinated meat and shredded carrots and onions and some sort of exotic leafy stuff, which is quite delicious, especially when you are ravenously hungry.

In the afternoon we did more surveying, this time on streets in East Biloxi. We interviewed a woman who was clearly very well-to-do, and another woman who was clearly less well off, and therefore much more interesting. She and her husband had nine children, the youngest of whom was 15, and she had gone to college on a basketball scholarship. The first floor of their house had been flooded up to the ceiling, and the roof had blown off and landed in front of the house, where they were using it as a shed for the tools that the husband was using to fix the house.

Although it's usually entirely obvious, we are always supposed to ask what the person would like us to put down for gender and race/ethnicity. So we asked this woman, who was a very dark-skinned African-American, what she would like us to put down for race/ethnicity. "White," she said. "No, Black, honey," she laughed. She was very interested in the survey, and labored over which of the 12 choices she should choose as the three most important.

I mention this only because you might think that a 20-minute, 52-question survey would not be people's favorite thing to do on a Saturday when there is clearly a lot of other work to be done. But these people are really invested in their community, and want to see it become a better place. Many people answered the questions very carefully, and really thought about what was most important for the city. When we told them about the meetings, they expressed genuine interest in going.

In contrast, the next woman agreed to do the survey, but really wasn't that interested in it. She just breezed right through it and didn't even bother to have me read off the 12 options; she just told me what she thought was most important and I checked it off. I am not sure if this is because she was not invested in the city, she had something she wanted to be doing instead, she thought the survey was useless, or she was in some sort of chemically-induced state.

I mention this last possibility because the street we were surveying was apparently the big street for drug dealing in East Biloxi. You wouldn't know by looking at it; it looked like a perfectly nice, though significantly storm-damaged, neighborhood. But everyone we surveyed said crime was the most pressing issue for the city to address, both before and after the hurricane, and some complained specifically about street-level drug dealing (primarily crack, apparently).

The last guy was very interesting. We had talked to him at the beginning of the afternoon, and he asked us to come back later since he was busy just then, but very interested. Then he saw that I was holding a detailed map of the area, with every house drawn on it, so he asked to make a photocopy.
Weird thing #1: He wanted to copy the map.
Weird thing #2: He had a photocopier in his FEMA trailer.
We let him copy it, and we went back later. It turned out that he had a Master's degree (there wasn't even a box to check for any education beyond completion of college) and was working on a plan to turn his property and the adjacent ones into affordable condominiums. His theory was very interesting:

In order to live in that area of Biloxi, it is essential that the house be built up off the ground, so that if it floods, it doesn't flood the house. If every single person has to build their house up that far, that's prohibitive; people don't have the resources to do that. But if you put in condos, then everyone above the first story (which I suppose could be a parking garage or something other than living space) is just fine. This is a great idea. He even showed us the preliminary plans, which he had printed out on those big blueprints-size sheets of paper.

So, that was that. It was a good day.

Tomorrow four Williams students of which I am one, five long-term volunteers, and five Berkeley students will go five hours away to do a different project, where we will be until Thursday. There is this organization that distributes books to low-income areas, and over the years it has distributed 40 million such books. After the hurricane, it received one million books to distribute to the Gulf Coast, but it had nowhere to put them since all the warehouses in the Gulf Coast were destroyed, so it put them all in this one big warehouse, and there they have sat for six months.

Anyway, Hands On agreed to send people to sort the books. So I am going to go and sort one million books. It is going to be totally awesome. We are going to sort books all day, and live in a cabin in the woods with hiking trails at night, and the town is going to give us meals, because that is just how awesome they think we are. So I won't be in Biloxi for the next few days, but I will be going to the area of greatest need, sorting books in an effort to expand literacy.

Clearly, it's unlikely that I'll have Internet access. Six Williams sophomores have agreed to take over the posting at EphBlog, so go there and comment and support their noble efforts at continuing the Katrina blogging tradition. I have every indication that it will be stellar.


Francis Lam said...

Hi Diana,

I stumbled upon your post about surveying in the old EB, and really enjoyed it. A couple of quick comments:

1) I think you have the importance of the survey as an advocacy tool right on. But I'd also add that in addition to that use, the action plan that comes out of the surveys and the community meetings is going to be a working document for all of those who are doing the hard work of rebuilding the community. For example, a huge percentage of people said that "recreation centers for children" was a top three need - as a result, Hands On and other organizations are working on rebuilding John Henry Beck Park. Please tell your friend David from the EphBlog that the survey results will serve a purpose outside of advocacy; that the surveys are being tabulated; that Bill Stallworth, who heads the Coordination Center, is also a City Councilmember; and that cynicism is a poison, an intellectually and morally lazy position.

2) It’s a huge country – so much room for so many different ways to live a life.

3) The green stuff in Le Bakery’s sandwiches is cilantro. It’s also called fresh coriander, although not to be mistaken for what is commonly known as coriander, which is the dried seed of fresh coriander. As a seed, that is a spice. The leaves and stems are herbs. Cilantro, by the way, is the most commonly used herb in the world, and a close cousin of parsley. It’s an acquired taste for many who didn’t grow up with it, and contains a flavonid that causes some people to find it soapy tasting. Those people generally don’t acquire the taste for it.

4) I know plenty of very interesting well-to-do people. Some of whom are interesting because they are well-to-do, and others who are interesting outside of that fact. Some of them, sadly, are interesting because they are morally reprehensible and, as a result, are well-to-do.

5) You saw this first hand, but I do want to note that we’d planned 21 days to get 500 surveys done and thought that’d be a stretch because we assumed many people would be disaffected and cynical. We got 430 of them done in half that time. What that says to me is that people in East Biloxi are clearly invested in this project, and in rebuilding their community.

6) I totally met the photocopier dude! He came up to me during one of the community meetings, his “architectural plans” in hand. As he flipped through them, I began wondering what kind of architectural plans look like nothing more than a square on one page, followed by a rectangle on the next, followed by that square with a line down the middle of it. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I think the “architect” he worked with probably trained in the LegoLand section of the toy store. Maybe I did him a disservice.

Anyway, I hope you found your time in Biloxi useful. For me, it’s been incredibly intense, tiring, and sometimes bordering on demoralizing. But then I take a look at Bill Stallworth, or chat with Miss Lucille or any one of the dozens of people I met or worked with, and think that they’ve been running at this pace since the storm hit, that they don’t have another home to go back to, that they’re doing this because their lives –as they knew them – depend on it, and I’m awed by their strength. That’s inspiring, fortifying, or at the very least, anesthetizing. Hope you’re well.

Chopsticksenator at gmail dot com.

Diana said...

Hi, Francis! I hope you like living back in the city or wherever you are when you're not in a disaster zone.

I have passed the message on to David. Thanks. And I didn't know it was fresh coriander, though I've certainly heard of that.

The photocopier dude showed me his plans, and I also thought they were, uh, quite basic. Squares, really. He had a plan of the parking garage, which was lines with diagonal lines. But he had it printed on that nice paper! Maybe he was just going for a bit of legitimacy. He did have a master's degree, whatever good that does, so maybe he knew people who knew people. We can hope.

Francis Lam said...

Well, on second thought, perhaps I was a little hard on this David fellow without knowing more about him or what drove his commentary. But his seemingly offhand dismissal of a project that I and - much more importantly - the community of East Biloxi is deeply invested in hit in a personal way. So I lashed out. Trying to wipe the blood off the walls.

Diana said...

It's okay, he's used to it.